Note for Gandhi Jayanti: What current generation should make of Mahatma's experiments with ahimsa

It is truly an honour to be with you here today at an institution that commemorates an ancient centre of learning and also serves as a reminder of the fragility of knowledge that remains in books and scrolls.
Mahatma Gandhi often spoke about how his life was altered by a single book — John Ruskin's 'Unto This Last'. It was this book that reaffirmed Gandhi's intuitive feeling that true civilisation is not the ability to build elaborate structures or design complex technology. True civilisation, for Gandhi, is that which enables human beings to tap the higher faculties of love, compassion and brotherhood. And these qualities depend not so much on knowledge stored in books but in how the living practise of these values manifests itself generation after generation.
What then are the current generations to make of Gandhi's deeply intense experiments with non-violence? What indeed is Gandhian non-violence and how is it different from passive resistance? For the real peril of our times is not that Gandhian non-violence may be impractical but that we, however inadvertently, reduce it and equate it with merely the rejection of physical violence.
If Mahatma Gandhi was still alive, tomorrow would be his 148th birthday! I mention this impossibility merely to highlight that there was a time when Gandhi actually wanted to live to be at least 125 years old — he felt he had so much still to do. But by 1946, as the toll of horrific ethnic violence ripped through communities in different parts of India, this zest for life had drained out of Gandhi. In 1947 as the situation worsened, leading eventually to the Partition of India, Gandhi often used his daily evening prayer meetings to declare that he no longer wanted to live, he wanted freedom from this mortal coil. Sometimes, Gandhi would actually ask those who came to his daily prayer meeting to pray that he may soon die.
A file image of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Getty images.
This voice of despair arose from Gandhi being heart-broken — because his most fond hope of a united India was shattered and he was unable to stop the carnage which accompanied the Partition. At the prayer meeting on his first and only birthday in Independent India, Gandhi said there was nothing to celebrate, instead he called his birthday "a day of mourning" because he was still alive to see his ideals and striving reduced to ashes.
Surrounded by an impenetrable darkness Gandhi confronted, and openly spoke about, the failure of his practise of ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for non-violence. As the noted scholar Sudhir Chandra has written in his recent book, never before had Gandhi's mind been so unsteady or hazy. He spoke of his thinking failing him. At the heart of this sorrow was Gandhi's bewilderment as to how satyagraha, the appeal to truth, had brought forth so bitter a fruit.
At the evening prayer meeting on 14 July, 1947 Gandhi declared that:
'The struggle we waged over the last 30 years was not based on the strength of ahimsa. It was merely passive resistance and such resistance is a weapon of the weak."
If Gandhi himself concluded that his practise of ahimsa failed then is non-violence at all possible?
Gandhi's answer even amid abject despair was an emphatic 'Yes!' To the bitter end Gandhi was adamant, that 'ahimsa can never suffer bankruptcy'. He remained immovably confident that even if millions of people are unable to validate the truth of ahimsa in their own lives that would be their failure not that of ahimsa.
What saves this conviction from being a personal dream, and makes it viable in the real world, is Gandhi's equally emphatic acknowledgement that ahimsa cannot work if it is entirely one-sided. In other words, if the civility of the advocates of ahimsa fails to improve the conduct of others and violence persists then even the presence of a 100 Gandhis cannot stem the tide of violence.
Let us now move to our present times and look at how this basic faith, so passionately and painfully lived by Gandhi, keeps manifesting itself in societies across the world.
In October 2001, shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, I happened to be in New York. As I walked through a neighbourhood in lower Manhattan I was struck by a laminated cutting from a newspaper, that had been stuck on the gate of a small local park. The text on that page was a letter written by a woman who had lost her husband in the terrorist strike on the World Trade Centre a month earlier. Please, let there be no more killing, the widow pleaded in her letter — which had been published by the Chicago Tribune.
Even in that moment of deep personal loss, this woman seemed to be equally anguished by the claim that bombing another country, even one which served as a base for the terrorists, would serve as justice. She was echoing the elementary truth of Gandhi's famous quote: "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind."
It does not matter whether this was a stray personal appeal or whether large numbers of people in societies across the world share this sentiment.
Yes, numbers are important in the political arena. But in the amorphous cross-currents that make up society, what in Hindi we call samaj, numbers are not everything.
History is replete with incidents involving a single individual that have a cascading effect on societies — be it the 19th century incident of a young Gandhi being forcibly evicted from a whites-only railway compartment in South Africa, or the 21st century incident of the vendor in Tunisia whose humiliation by a police officer triggered a revolution.
Perhaps the most famous such single individual incident of the 20th century is that of Rosa Parks — an African American woman who refused to give up her bus seat in the "coloured section" to a white person, even though 'ordered' to do so by the bus driver.
To understand the power of what Rosa Parks did, I strongly recommend that you see the three hour documentary film 'A Force More Powerful'. Based on archival footage of the Montgomery civil rights movement this film shows the calm courage of the African Americans who sat quietly at lunch counters even though they were being heckled and threatened by those who wanted to keep colour-based segregation in place.
That struggle half way across the world from India was a reaffirmation of Gandhi's conviction that true non-violence is a "more active and more real way of fighting against wickedness than retaliation whose very nature is to increase wickedness."
At this point, you could well challenge me and say that all these struggles did not work - look at the open expression of racism today in American society!
This question is valid if you believe that human beings are so easily and rapidly changeable. If however, you recognize that meaningful and sustainable change tends to be excruciatingly slow - then you can admire the ground gained by the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and see the present as a new phase of struggle not as a backward movement.
Above all, Gandhi's experiments in India and the struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. in America are vital to the present because they manifest the power of non-violence over mere passive resistance.
Passive resistance is easily reduced to mere tactics. It is often chosen simply as a way of out-smarting the powers-that-be, on the assumption that it more difficult to fire upon unarmed protestors or challengers. In the absence of sustained training some who join a passive resistance movement can slip into violence — either out of fear or more often out of hatred for those they oppose.
Sure enough even passive resistance requires a great deal of courage. But it is a less ambitious endeavour if freedom from hating the 'other' is not at the core. Above all, if passive resistance is no more than a way of out-smarting the authorities, then its votaries may not share Gandhi and King's core insight - namely that it is non-violence rather than violence that has been central to the journey of society formation. As Gandhi often pointed out if violence had been our dominant trait the species would have self-destructed long ago.
Over the last half century this conviction, this insight, has been validated both by multi-disciplinary research and the living practise of those who have worked for social and political change through non-violence. This research has shown that while violence is a powerful human impulse it is not our most dominant impulse. It is not the case that to be human is to be violent. On the contrary empathy, compassion and cooperation have been the essential building blocks of our evolutionary journey.
How does any of this help us in the immediate situations that we face — when non-violence seems like an attractive but difficult or impractical choice? How might one journey along this path?
I will attempt to answer this question by drawing on the insights of not only Gandhi but also Thomas Merton, a Christian monk and anti-war activist; and of course Martin Luther King Jr.
To be non-violent means that I cannot feel superior to my opponent. I must at last try not to see the adversary as being totally wicked and utterly incapable of being reasonable or well-intentioned. Such an attitude, as Merton wrote, would defeat the very purpose of non-violence — openness, communication, dialogue. It is when these core values are undermined that some acts of civil disobedience or passive resistance become self-defeating because they end up antagonizing the adversary, making him or her more un-willing to communicate through anything but bullets and batons.
The purpose is not to humiliate or destroy the opponent but to win his or her friendship and understanding.
The focus is sharply on the wrong doing not on the wrong doer.
Action is rooted in the belief that the universe is on the side of justice.
And most important of all, there is a willingness to suffer without retaliation.
In contrast to this, Gene Sharp, perhaps the most famous advocate of strategic unarmed resistance, has argued that the spiritual and heavily moral variety of non-violence makes it less accessible to large numbers of people. It is indeed Sharp's manuals and tool-kits that have been deployed by struggles across the world - perhaps most famously here in Egypt. In some cases those methods have indeed succeeded in bringing about regime change.
And yet, across the world, there is an intense longing for something more, something far deeper, than mere change of rulers. And if it is a transformation of society - in favour of compassion and cooperation and brotherhood, that we long for then there is no escape from looking more closely at the experiments of Gandhi, King and many others who are not as well known.
For this to be possible you may have to see non-violence as a work-in-progress, as a process and not as a destination.
This is why Gandhi remained confident even in a time of darkness and despair - because to him ahimsa was a science. Thus, he argued: 'The word 'failure' has no place in the vocabulary of science. Failure to obtain the expected result is often the precursor to further discoveries."
I will close with these words that Gandhi wrote just 20 days before he was assassinated:
"I must not …flatter myself with the belief - nor allow friends to entertain the belief that I have exhibited any heroic and demonstrable non-violence in myself. All I can claim is that I am sailing in that direction without a moment's stop."
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